Productivity, pandemic and HR (Today’s different world of HR)

This is the time for HR to re-imagine what it can be and how it can deliver outsized value even in the face of such radical change.
By: | September 29, 2020

By Brian Sommer, an award-winning technology analyst, strategy consultant and writer.

The concept of productivity has been around for a long time. For most, productivity gains occur whenever you can do more with the same or fewer resources.

Organisations have focused on improving productivity for ages as it is the way to lower costs and widen margins. It can also help firms deliver better levels of (and more timely or accurate) service to its constituents (customers, employees and suppliers). And while productivity has been, and will remain, a key business focus, it took some hits when the pandemic changed the world.

Covid-19 really threw a wrench in productivity. As plants and offices closed, many firms could not produce products or deliver many services without access to these facilities. Take restaurants: it does not matter how hard employees would work, if the government shut these businesses down or forced them to only do take-out business, their revenue per employee (or productivity) would likely plummet. 

Work-from-home (WFH) mandates by governments and employers have produced a mixed effect on productivity. For some people, WFH is a productivity boost as they no longer waste time commuting to work.

But for many others, WFH is hurting productivity. Why? WFH works best in countries where individuals have high-speed/broadband internet access in their homes. Just having a 4G-enabled smartphone is not enough. Through interviews, we encountered an executive who had to add an additional internet line and acquire another broadband router as his children’s online activities were adversely impacting his business Zoom calls.

The initial rush to WFH was complicated, too. Many firms lacked enough licenses for remote access to their application software. The most challenged firms had on-premises solutions running on underpowered servers or lacked enough VPN licenses or other network access points. These shortfalls took time to remedy and productivity was impacted.

Processes that relied on paper, spreadsheets or collaboration with colleagues were adversely affected and hurt productivity, too.

For these and other reasons, a loss of productivity has been cited a key executive concern since the start of this year. The question is: What can HR do to help?

HR’s New Role

HR must support two main productivity efforts. One of these must make HR itself as productive as possible while the other should address what HR can do for the rest of the firm.

Today, a number of productivity challenges must be addressed by HR. These include a number of issues with on-premises applications, especially payroll. In fact, our interviews have turned up a number of firms that have struggled with payroll lately. Their issues included difficultly in:

  • Remotely entering/updating employee time.
  • Remotely processing paid time off.
  • Developing/correcting the payroll/general ledger interface files.
  • Processing mass changes.

Recruiting is another function that HR may be struggling with now. How do you interview people if you cannot meet them or easily co-ordinate interviews and interview results with remote colleagues?

What HR must have now, are solutions that are more in-sync with the times and trigger productivity gains:

  • Solutions that the vendor (not internal IT) supports and maintains (multi-tenant cloud apps)
  • Self-service solutions that HR (and other employees) can access anywhere, anytime on any kind of smartphone, tablet or personal computer.
  • Technology with great mass change capabilities (mass hirings, mass layoffs and across the board pay changes).
  • Solutions with fully automated integrations to HR and non-HR systems.
  • The deployment of new chatbots (to offload many common tasks and workloads from HR)
  • The use of smart (ML-powered) workflow and exception handling technology (so systems make a number of routine decisions faster than humans).
  • Powerful machine learning (ML) tools to make recommendations re: job candidates to pursue, career options for employees, and assessments of potential retention issues.

There are other productivity opportunities/challenges, too where HR can help the enterprise itself. HR must keep all employees motivated, engaged and productive. They need to help employees everywhere coordinate with each other. And, of course, they need to make sure people have the right skills and are working on the most important and valuable tasks the firm requires now.

Bottom line: This is the time for HR to re-imagine what it can be and how it can deliver outsized value even in the face of such radical change.  The goal should not be to just return to some variation of the old normal. No, the goal is re-invent HR to deliver value in a more chaotic, dynamic world. That is the focus every firm needs from its HR leaders now. 

Brian Sommer will be making a keynote presentation titled Productivity: The new challenge for HR and its support for the organisation at HR Tech Festival Asia Online 2020. Register for the session here.